The New York Times
Admissionsby Nancy Lieberman
This sharply observed and bitingly funny novel exposes the over-the-top absurdity of New York City's elite private school admissions circus. For Manhattan's most affluent parents, the Tuesday after Labor Day marks the beginning of the city's most competitive and vicious blood sport: the start of the private school admissions process. But for Helen Drager, mother of… See more details below
This sharply observed and bitingly funny novel exposes the over-the-top absurdity of New York City's elite private school admissions circus. For Manhattan's most affluent parents, the Tuesday after Labor Day marks the beginning of the city's most competitive and vicious blood sport: the start of the private school admissions process. But for Helen Drager, mother of Zoe, it shouldn't be such an ordeal. After all, Helen's best friend Sara is an admissions officer at Zoe's current K-8. But Sara's position becomes precarious, and Helen soon finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mounting lunacy generated by the fierce competition.
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By Nancy Lieberman
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Nancy Lieberman
All right reserved.
The Tuesday after Labor Day marked the official start of admissions season, the Manhattan parents' version of a blood sport. The ferocity with which Wall Street traders worked the floor, mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers closed their deals, magazine editors staked their claims on a hot new trend, and ladies who lunched jockeyed for position at the fall shows couldn't hold a candle to the intense competition between families to secure that most coveted of accessories: a space for their child in the school of their choice.
Anticipating the onslaught, Sara Nash arrived at The School early and found her new assistant, Brandi, already at her desk, speaking rapidly into the receiver while casting a wary eye at her phone's four other blinking red lights. Every blip signaled an incoming call from an anxious New York parent, each more desperate than the last to obtain an application for one of the few available spots in The School's renowned Kindergarten.
"Your name and address, please. Yes, we do require The Kindergarten Admissions Test. How nice; I'm impressed, and I'm sure Ms. Nash will be, too. Yes, she is our director of admissions, and all correspondence should be addressed to her. No, there is no 'G' in 'Nash'-just like itsounds. Yes, that would be perfect. Thank you. Goodbye." Brandi hung up, gulped down a swig of her double skim latte, and resolutely moved on to the next call.
"Child's last name, please, if different from yours. Hmmm, that is different. It's spelled 'X-I-E'?" She quickly scribbled the information before taking the next call.
As Sara plugged in the kettle to make a pot of chamomile tea, she nodded with approval at the tele-patter emanating from the outer office.
"Yes. Once we receive the application, we'll call you to schedule the tour and interview. Yes. Both parents should try to come. There are four of you? Then, yes, by all means, all of you come."
Sara exhaled a sigh of relief; Brandi's tone conveyed just the right blend of solicitous and officious, helpful but hardly encouraging. She hoped she would turn out to be a good hire.
"Yes, we do require the child to be potty-trained. How old is your son?"
Just keeping the applicants' names straight was a challenge, even for a well-seasoned professional like Sara. Last year's applicants included five-year-old Thiruvikraman Hathiramani, the son of Chandrakanta Subramanian and Ramesh Hathiramani, the famous Bollywood filmmakers who had recently relocated from Bombay to Tribeca. Throughout the admissions process, Sara struggled to keep them straight, and just barely managed to address them properly at the interview-no small feat from a girl from Omaha. When she discovered that the boy not only could spell all these names but was trilingual, ambidextrous, and an accomplished T-ball player, she marked an emphatic "accept" on his application forms on the spot.
Then there was the family with the adopted child and same-sex parents-the Chuan Lee Tsao-Silverbergs. The daughter, Lili-Xin, was bright, talented, and well behaved, but Sara decided that the parents, Drs. Jaehoon Chuan Lee Tsao and Steven Silverberg, were just too high-maintenance. Not only was their interview one of the longest on record, she then spent hours on the phone with them discussing The School's position on multiculturalism and alternative lifestyles.
"Miss Nash, I was curious about your use of the word 'seminal' when you were describing The School's policies on tolerance to us last week," Dr. Silverberg probed in the course of their fourth phone conversation.
"Yes," Dr. Tsao chimed in. "It's important to us that The School not just talk the talk-you must walk the walk, as I tell all my patients."
Sara wondered how his patients kept their patience. Losing her own, she placed their application in the Life's Too Short pile.
Philosophically she supported their family structure, just not when both parents were shrinks.
Perhaps the most difficult admissions call of the prior year had been the Bangston fiasco. While considering an application for the spoiled rotten, high-strung, and mean-spirited daughter of Stuart Bangston, a hostile, hostile takeover specialist, Sara inadvertently learned that the father's firm had made an unprecedentedly grandiose contribution to The School. The one-million-dollar gift was the largest individual donation in the history of The School and, to Sara's ethical nose, reeked of corrupt intent. After an in-school battle that pitted the office of admissions (or, when it came down to it, Sara) against the powers that be, the board of trustees stepped in and pronounced that the five-year-old tantrumer was "unquestionably a highly qualified applicant," and instructed Sara, under no uncertain terms, to accept her forthwith.
Thus admissions decisions were made at The School.
Seven blocks north, on another tree-lined street in upper Manhattan, Helen Drager sat in her office / dining alcove, determinedly pushing the redial button on her phone. Helen had begun her morning under the cheerful misconception that phoning a few schools to request high school applications for her daughter, Zoe, would be a fairly straightforward project. She delighted in plunging into simple tasks that could be ticked off on her daily mental to-do list without much fuss and bother. This seemingly minor chore, however, was beginning to remind her of the time she had spent days calling all over town in search of the Tickle Me Elmo doll Zoe desperately wanted for her fifth birthday, only to be told there was a three-month wait. Unused to denying her daughter her heart's desire, Helen had pulled every string she could think of to hasten the toy's arrival and managed to cut the wait down to three weeks. Unfortunately, by the time it finally arrived, Zoe had lost interest in Elmo and was on to the next big thing: a repellent purple and green television dinosaur.
Dolls and dinosaurs were minor speed bumps-applications to high schools were another issue entirely. The day before the admissions process began, she and her husband, Michael, had vowed to keep their sense of humor intact. Well, it's always good to set goals, Helen thought wryly while adjusting the hands-free-to-multitask headset, which allowed her to pay bills, send e-mail, and wipe the breakfast crumbs off the table while patiently standing by for her call to be answered by the first available admissions assistant.
Press "one" if you are requesting an application for a child who aspires to attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale only, she joked to herself. See, the whole thing really could be funny. It would just take some extra effort on her part. Still waiting, Helen looked critically around to determine the next task to fill the on-hold-Muzak void.
The Dragers' 1920 Deco-style apartment, although smaller than the "classic seven" Helen had ideally wished for, was elegant in its simplicity. A disciple of the modernist aesthetic, she appreciated good design at its cleanest and sparest; despite its rampant overuse by marketers and branding consultants, "keep it simple" was her mantra for both her home and her appearance. As a result, she had been able to spend money sparingly on good pieces, to pleasing overall effect. Most of the Dragers' furniture bore the imprimatur of an important twentieth-century designer, and Zoe had learned at an early age to refer to "the Eames chairs" or the "Mackintosh table" when speaking of the things in their household. Even Michael, who was avowedly more interested in Le Cordon Bleu than Le Corbusier, appreciated her good taste. She, in turn, indulged his appetite by agreeing to splurge on a professional kitchen, albeit a small one, which, with its industrial appliances and stainless steel counters, conformed to her style as well.
Still in a tele-holding pattern, Helen glanced approvingly across their modestly proportioned living room, admiring the successful compromise between design and comfort she felt she had achieved. The two downy ecru sofas and a plush, geometrically patterned area rug provided a soft contrast to the austerity of the other furnishings. Disdainful of clutter, she remembered what a relief it had been to replace the Playskool kitchen with the Barcelona lounger and reinstate the Aalto vase in its rightful place on the Nakashima table when Zoe finally outgrew the baby-proofing stage.
A house full of toys was a small price to pay for the joy we got from Zoe when she was a toddler, she thought wistfully as her gaze rested on a small photograph, the only object atop the smooth sea-green credenza that separated the foyer from the living room. The frame held a picture of Zoe as a small child, chasing a balloon on a windy beach, the glee on her face unmistakably that of a carefree spirit.
Helen thought back to the time that photo had been taken: Zoe had been five, and the Dragers had just finished applying to Kindergarten. The only requirement was that her child look presentable, know her ABC's, and not pick her nose during the interview, although even that would probably have been acceptable at some of the more progressive schools. It certainly had been a carefree time-although the private schools cultivated an air of selectivity, the population had been so different in New York back then that schools had to hide the fact that they accepted a large percentage of the applicants.
Damn. Why didn't we apply to one of the K-12 schools back then? If we had chosen one of those instead of The School, we wouldn't be going through this now, she chastised herself while sealing and stamping an envelope.
Nine years ago, both she and Michael had agreed that the intimate and nurturing ambiance of a K-8 school was appealing and that delaying interaction with high schoolers for as long as possible was a good idea.
"It isn't a life-or-death decision; it's just kindergarten," they repeatedly told each other back then, never imagining they would ever have to worry about admissions again. The School staked its reputation on being a "feeder to the feeders," meaning that its graduating eighth-grade students were assured entrance into New York's top high schools, which ultimately fed into the Ivy League.
But in recent years the rules of the game had changed: the players had become increasingly more cutthroat, and the playing field had turned treacherous. With a slew of children born to ambitious baby-boomers with six-figure incomes, gaining entree into one of the top private schools had become not only an enormous financial challenge but a torturously uncertain odds-against-you gamble as well.
To further complicate matters, Helen's confidence in her advisor, Pamela Rothschild, the head of The School, had started to wane. Once the pinnacle of professionalism, over the past several months Pamela had often failed to return phone calls and e-mails and, in general, seemed peculiar and remote. Her personal counsel-and more important, her wide-ranging influence-were what Helen had counted on to make this process bearable. But recently, Pamela's erratic behavior was troublesome. Confronting that problem could mean losing her as an ally, so Helen was reduced to feeling like the wallflower who needed to befriend the popular cheerleader in order to be invited to the fun parties. In this case, though, the outcome of not being invited to the right parties meant more than just staying home on a Saturday night; it could mean never getting into college, holding down a job ... Before Zoe knew it, she'd be destitute, looking for a handout ...
"May I help you?" the voice broke in, mercifully putting an end to Helen's nightmarish vision. Helen quickly dropped her pen, straightened her spine, and cleared her throat.
"Oh, yes, hello. Yes, please. I would like to receive an application for my daughter, Zoe Drager, for grade nine. A wait list? Just for the application? Well, yes, I suppose I would like to be added to the list. Thank you. And a letter stating our interest? Hand-delivered? Okay. Right away. Sure, yes, thank you so much for your help. Goodbye." Three down, three to go. Helen groaned.
Groveling with admissions people was especially difficult for Helen, who, as president of the Parents' Association for the past three years, had earned VIP status and insider access at The School. Even The School's receptionist, Miss Lulu, recognized her voice whenever she called, and always managed to come up with a timely comment like, "Zoe looks so adorable without her front teeth," or "I bet you made Zoe's scarecrow costume, didn'chya?"
She was glad Michael and Zoe were not home to witness her frustration, preferring her family not see her in the abject role of underdog. She had ceremoniously announced "Today's the day!" as Michael was leaving for work this morning, and he'd responded casually with some remark like "I'd wish you luck but I can't imagine you'll need it."
Ignorance is bliss, she thought, on hold for school number four.
Unlike Michael, Zoe was visibly nervous and had started biting her nails again, even though she had kicked the habit four years ago. The anxiety was contagious and had likely been caught from her classmates, many of whom had spent a good part of the summer talking about applying to high school and speculating on who would be accepted at which schools.
Two hours later Helen finished up the last of her calls, having made contact with all six schools, to varying degrees of success. Convinced that her morning's work represented a victory of sorts, she filled in the scorecard she had created for herself during the course of the morning:
SCHOOL PHONE DIRECTOR OF STATUS # ADMISSIONS The Fancy Girls' School 674-9876 Justine Frampton YES! Sending application Sept. 4 The Progressive School 563-9827 Soledad Gibson YES! Sending application Sept. 4 The Bucolic Campus School 475-8392 Vincent Gargano YES! Sending application Sept. 4 The Safety School 498-5937 Shirley Livingston YES! Sending application Sept. 4 The Very Brainy Sept. 4 wait listed for Girls' School 938-8475 Eva Hopkins application-Send letter The Downtown Sept. 4 wait listed for School 483-8473 Taisha Anguilla application-Nothing to do but wait ...
That done, she forced herself to dash off a lighthearted e-mail to the head of The School.
Got all my requests done this a.m. the first day after Labor Day! Isn't that great! We're getting applications from all the schools you suggested except for two. We're wait listed at those.
Excerpted from Admissions by Nancy Lieberman Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Lieberman. Excerpted by permission.
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